Eating disorders: the warning signs and what to do about them

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Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses where people misuse food to try to cope with difficult feelings and situations. It’s not surprising that for many people who have eating disorders or could develop them, the anxiety and stress of the last year has made things harder.

The way we shop for food, the food we can get hold of, and how much of it we’re keeping in the house, as well as the impact on routine, exercise, and access to both personal and professional support, have all helped eating disorders thrive.

What should you be looking out for?

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The sooner someone gets the support they need, the more chance they have of getting better. The first changes you might notice probably won’t be physical, but to do with how they feel and act. Here are some things to think about if you’re worried about your child:

How do they feel about food?

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Eating disorders aren’t really about food – the way someone treats food as part of their eating disorder is a way to cope with things they’re struggling with. This looks different from person to person, but most people experience some or all of:

  • Limiting how much they eat, by eating much less or by only eating certain types of food.
  • Eating a lot of food at once without feeling any control over what they’re doing (bingeing).
  • Getting rid of food they’ve eaten by, for example, making themselves sick or doing lots of exercise (purging).

They may want lots of detail about what’s going into a meal, be concerned about how healthy the food they’re eating is, or find reasons not to join you for dinner, like saying they’re not hungry or they’ll eat in their room.

They might not finish meals; or take a long time to do so – cutting up food into tiny pieces or repeatedly pushing it around the plate can be ways that people delay eating or try to make it look as though they’ve eaten more than they have. You might find they often leave quickly after a meal – going straight to the bathroom or to exercise could be a sign that they’re trying to get rid of the food they’ve just eaten.

If someone is bingeing, you might notice that they’re buying lots of food, or that food is running out faster than you would expect. Binge eating isn’t something the person feels any control over – they might feel a lot of guilt and shame, and try to cover it up (for example, by running the shower to cover the sound of being sick).

Are they more withdrawn?

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It may not be obvious if your child is starting to isolate themselves. They may be avoiding you and other people they live with, or, if you’re not in a house together, they may be getting in touch less or not wanting to talk for very long. You may have noticed that they’re catching up with friends less often, or that they’re reluctant to return to the hobbies they enjoyed before the coronavirus restrictions.

They may also seem to be losing interest in solitary activities that they’ve enjoyed and might replace these with food or exercise-based hobbies that seem to be filling a lot of their time.

Have they lost their confidence?

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Eating disorders can really affect someone’s confidence and self-esteem. This might mean they have body image concerns – they may be unhappy with their appearance, negatively compare themselves to other people, regularly check their reflection or weigh themselves, or alternatively avoid the mirror or scales. But it might affect their confidence in other areas too, such as school, hobbies, or relationships, and you may find that they set very high standards for themselves.

What’s their mood like?

Having an eating disorder affects every area of a person’s life. They may seem more anxious or unhappy, not just around food, their weight or shape but other things too. You might find they’re more irritable or go through mood swings, and they could struggle to concentrate. Often people experience an eating disorder like “a voice in their head” – this eating disorder voice might make them behave in ways that seem very out of character, and it’s good to remember that this is not their fault.

How can you help?

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Key to helping your child is to do so as quickly as possible. It’s much more likely that someone will get better if they get the support they need early on. Here’s what you can do to approach them about your concerns:

  • Make sure you’re speaking to them in a space that feels safe. That’s probably somewhere quiet where you won’t be disturbed, but think about mood, too (neither of you should feel upset or angry) and about timing (avoid talking just before or after meals).
  • While it may not be possible to completely avoid it, try to steer clear of food or weight. Try to focus instead on changes to their behaviour or thinking that are concerning you.
  • Remember, they may feel defensive, as the eating disorder is often a way to cope that they may be reluctant to give up. They also may not be aware that they are ill. Speak to them in a way that makes it clear you’re on their side and aren’t accusing them of doing anything wrong – “I’ve noticed you seem quite stressed at the moment; how can I help?” is a better way to raise concerns, for example, than “Why are you so stressed?”
  • If they do get angry or deny there’s anything wrong, don’t be disheartened or put off. Reassure them that your concern is with their wellbeing and they can talk to you any time. Try to pick up the conversation again as soon as you can.
  • Book a GP appointment as soon as possible so that you can ask for a referral to an eating disorders specialist. Beat has a leaflet with information for the GP to help you get the outcome you’re looking for.
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